In Layman's Terms - Bob Sullivan

The new illiteracy

By Bob Sullivan 

If you are Catholic, you have heard of the “New Evangelization.” Pope Leo XIII came up with the concept that St. John Paul II re-introduced a little more than 100 years later.
But neither pope had to contend with something with which the Church has had to contend for most of its existence: The illiteracy of the people.

For the first 1,400 years of Christianity, illiteracy was a reality for a large portion of the population of the world. In the late 1400s, that began to change due to the invention of the printing press (1440s), as well as advancements in education. There are numerous estimates as to the literacy of Europeans in 1500, but the best way to describe it is that ‘most’ Europeans were still illiterate in 1500.

Today, most Europeans and most Americans are literate. To be literate means one has the ability to read and write. As we look back in time, the literacy rate increases. Illiteracy, as it is traditionally defined, still exists in the world, especially in very poor developing countries, but worldwide, the population of the planet is much more able to read and write than the population in the past.

Unfortunately, the ability to read and write has not necessarily resulted in a willingness to read and write. Even though our schools are creating, year after year, graduates who are able to read books, including the classics that have helped develop civilization, fewer and fewer people are taking advantage of this skill. The sad fact is, technology has created a generation who has lost interest in reading books, booklets and even blogs and long articles.

In “What The Internet is Doing to our Brains, The Shallows” by Nicolas Carr, you can read about the historical development of communication and how the ability to consume and use information has created a serious problem in our culture.

The problem with Carr’s book is that you have to be willing to read it. For many people, the book may as well be 228 blank pages. It is approximately 227 pages more than most of us are willing to read and about 227.5 pages longer than many Americans are able to comprehend. 

Educators and marketing professionals have found that technology can halt, even reverse, a person’s interest in reading and ability to comprehend. This is a serious problem for intellectual development, and it is a serious problem in the New Evangelization because a deep understanding of and appreciation for our faith comes from books, especially the Bible.

The question is: How do we reach people who are not interested in reading the Bible, the Catechism, the Suma or even the most introductory books on the faith? I sometimes joke that “Rediscovering Catholicism” by Matthew Kelly is “See Spot Run” for Christians. Kelly’s book is one of the very best introductions or reintroductions to Catholicism there is. Its value is in its simplicity. It is easy to read and easy to understand.

The problem is that with each passing year, these facts become less important because fewer people are willing to read it, and those who may be willing, lose patience due to our infatuation with technology.

Newspaper editors know that few people read an entire newspaper article because as soon as they get to the part that says, “continued on page…”, they stop. Magazine publishers know that the cover sells and that few people actually read the contents. This isn’t helped by the fact that many magazines are basically a catalog of ads with some articles sprinkled in.

How can we introduce someone to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice when that person is deeply entrenched in the entertainment and information overload known as technology? Can you explain God’s love, even for the worst sinners, in 140 characters or less? There is a very good chance that you are one of the few people who still possesses the ability and the willingness to have read this far in this article. The New Illiteracy makes the Iron Curtain look flimsy.

While books, pamphlets, provoking titles or headlines, videos, tweets and other forms of communication may reach some people, there is nothing like a personal conversation. If a person is already open to faith, documents and materials can be a great aid, but if they are skeptical, entrenched or obstinate, an authentic conversation can begin a relationship which may eventually lead to a willingness to read and research the wealth of materials available to all of us. Unfortunately, authentic dialogue is falling victim to technology, just not as thoroughly as the willingness to read.

Therefore, I suggest we employ the following five approaches in order to improve our efforts to pass the faith along to those currently in our care:

1. Learn how to explain why you are Catholic (or Christian) in three minutes or less.
2. Compile a small cache of tools to assist in pointing people to the truth, such as pamphlets and links to good videos and short articles that point to sources and longer explanations in case someone is intrigued.
3. Compile quotes from great thinkers (including Scripture, of course) which you can use in conversation and social media.
4. Utilize visual art and music which points to God.
5. Recognize or create opportunities to engage people in personal, authentic conversation.

Our society has regressed to the point where we have only rare and brief opportunities to draw hearts and minds toward God. We have to seize these extremely valuable opportunities and provide nuggets of wisdom which may pique  the interest of someone just enough to cause them to follow that nugget back to something which will lead them to God.

Bob Sullivan

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